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Toronto clashes with province over public health cuts
April 25, 2019
Francine Kopun

The city and the province are sparring publicly over how hard Toronto will be hit by a decrease in funding for public health.

The city claims it stands to lose $1 billion over 10 years as a result of a provincial plan to slash public health spending, while the health minister’s office pegs it at less than half that amount.

Toronto health board chair, Councillor Joe Cressy, left, presses Travis Kann, a spokesperson for Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott, over the province's reluctance to disclose details of its cuts to public health funding.

On Wednesday at city hall, a spokesperson for Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott attended a news conference and disputed the city’s figures and the claim by Councillor Joe Cressy that the cuts would ultimately lead to deaths.

“The suggestion that people are going to die, I think, is an extreme example of fear-mongering and I think any reasonable Ontarian will view it as that,” said spokesperson Travis Kann, as he walked away from reporters and Cressy, who was attempting to question him after the news conference.

Kann said the ministry is trying to work with the city to clarify the issue.

“We obviously have a disagreement over the size of the financial impact,” said Kann. “We view it as one-third of a percentage point of the city’s overall budget. They have a different number. I can’t comment on how or why they got their numbers. We’ve reached out and are happy to try to reconcile the difference there.”

According to figures from the Health Ministry, it will mean a reduction in funding of $33 million for Toronto Public Health this year and $42 million a year once the changes are fully implemented in 2021-2022.

Cressy, who also chairs the city’s board of health, has been critical of the provincial decision to cut public health funding by $200 million across the province this year. Toronto has been told it will take a bigger proportion of the hit, and Kann said the city is in a better position to do so because it has economies of scale and because the province recently announced it is investing a minimum of $11.2 billion in building new transit for Toronto.

“We just invested tens of billions of dollars in transit funding, an historic amount, which will alleviate a ton of budget pressures on the City of Toronto’s budget and so it's a perfect opportunity for the city to reallocate those funds to public health,” Kann said.

During the news conference, Cressy (Ward 10 Spadina Fort York) reaffirmed that the provincial cuts to public health will cost Toronto Public Health $1 billion over 10 years and have a profound impact.

Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s medical officer of health, pointed out that Toronto Public Health plays a lead role in preventing outbreaks of infectious diseases such as SARS and H1N1.

“If we’re not there preventing them, eventually some of those infectious diseases will lead to death,” de Villa said.

Toronto Public Health funds and provides numerous services in the city, including student nutrition programs, which serve more than 210,000 meals a day; vaccination programs, including vaccinations for more than 20,000 students in 2018 and food safety inspections.

Cressy has the support of Mayor John Tory on the issue. Tory issued a news release Wednesday, pointing out that the cuts to public health by the province are retroactive to April 1 and were done without any consultation.

“If you want to end hallway healthcare, investing in public health -- not cutting it back -- is the way to do it,” according to Tory’s statement.

“We have been clear that this is an incredibly serious funding change which puts our city's health at risk and will put lives at risk here in Toronto and across the province.”

The chair of the City of Ottawa’s board of health has also warned that the city won’t be able to offer the same level of service due to the funding cuts.

The news conference at city hall was attended by several people who said Toronto’s Public Health department provided services to them that were essential to their well-being, including Priya Amin, who overcame tuberculosis diagnosed in 2015. In all, she spent four months in quarantine.

“I was assigned a case manager and a nurse who literally became like family to me,” said Amin, adding that at times during her quarantine the nurse brought her food.

“I wasn’t allowed to go to the grocery store or banks ... and your family and friends are there, but they also don’t understand the disease and there is a lot of fear around the disease,” said Amin.

“To be honest, without those services from Toronto Public Health, I don’t think I would be here today.”